In early June, 1969, Philip Oakes sent me a series o)f
questions on behalf of The Sunday Times, London. I
happened to be greatly annoyed by the editorial liberties that
periodicals in other countries had been taking with material I
had supplied. When he arrived on June 15, I gave him my written
answers accompanied by the following note.

When preparing interviews I invariably write out my
replies (and sometimes additional questions) taking great care
to make them as concise as possible.
My replies represent unpublished material, should be
printed verbatim and in toto, and copyrighted in my name.
Answers may be rearranged in whatever order the
interviewer car the editor wishes: for example, they may be
split, with insertion of the questioner's comments or bits of
descriptive matter (but none of the latter material may be
ascribed to me).
Unprepared remarks, quips, etc., may come from me during
the actual colloquy but may nut be published without my
approval. The article will be shown to me before publication so
as to avoid factual errors {e.g., in names, dates,

Mr. Oakes' article appeared in The Sunday Times on
June 22, 1969.

As a distinguished entomologist and novelist do you find
that your two main preoccupations condition, restrict, or
refine your view of the world?

What world? Whose world? If we mean the average world of
the average newspaper reader in Liverpool, Livorno, or Vilno,
then we are dealing in trivial generalities. If, on the other
hand, an artist invents his own world, as I think I do, then
how can he be said to influence his own understanding of what
he has created himself? As soon as we start defining such terms
as "the writer," "the world," "the novel," and so on, we slip
into a solipsismal abyss where general ideas dissolve. As to
butterflies-- well, my taxonomic papers on lepidoptera were
published mainly in the nineteen forties, and can be of
interest to only a few specialists in certain groups of
American butterflies. In itself, an aurelian's passion is not a
particularly unusual sickness; but it stands outside the limits
of a novelist's world, and I can prove this by the fact that
whenever I allude to butterflies in my novels, no matter how
diligently I rework the stuff, it remains pale and false and
does not really express what I want it to express-- what,
indeed, it can only express in the special scientific terms of
my entomological papers. The butterfly that lives forever on
its type-labeled pin and in its O. D. ("original description")
in a scientific journal dies a messy death in the fumes of the
arty gush. However-- not to let your question go completely
unanswered-- 1 must admit that in one sense the entomological
satellite does impinge upon my novelistic globe. This is when
certain place-names are mentioned. Thus if I hear or read the
words "Alp Grum, Engadine" the normal observer within me may
force me to imagine the belvedere of a tiny hotel on its
2000-meter-tall perch and mowers working along a path that
winds down to a toy railway; but what I see first of all and
above all is the Yellow-banded Ringlet settled with folded
wings on the flower that those damned scythes are about to

What was the most amusing item you recently found in the

That bit about Mr. E. Pound, a venerable fraud, making a
"sentimental visit" to his aima mater in Clinton, New York, and
being given a standing ovation by the commencement audience--
consisting, apparently, of morons and madmen.

Have you seen the cinema version of your Laughter
in the Dark?

I have. Nicol Williamson is, of course, an admirable
actor, and some of the sequences are very good. The scene with
the water-ski girl, gulping and giggling, is exceptionally
successful. But I was appalled by the commonplace quality of
the sexual passages. I would like to say something about that.
Clichés and conventions breed remarkably fast. They occur
as readily in the primitive jollities of the jungle as in the
civilized obligatory scenes of our theater. In former times
Greek masks must have set many a Greek dentition on edge. In
recent films, including Laughter in the Dark, the porno
grapple has already become a cliché though the
device is but half-a-dozen years old. I would have been sorry
that Tony Richardson should have followed that trite trend, had
it not given me the opportunity to form and formulate the
following important notion: theatrical acting, in the course of
the last centuries, has led to incredible refinements of
stylized pantomine in the representation of, say, a person
eating, or getting deliciously drunk, or looking for his
spectacles, or making a proposal of marriage. Not so in regard
to the imitation of the sexual act which on the stage has
absolutely no tradition behind it. The Swedes and we have to
start from scratch and what I have witnessed up to now on the
screen-- the blotchy male shoulder, the false howls of bliss,
the four or five mingled feet-- all of it is primitive,
commonplace, conventional, and therefore disgusting. The lack
of art and style in these paltry copulations is particularly
brought into evidence by their clashing with the marvelously
high level of acting in virtually all other imitations of
natural gestures on our stage and screen. This is an attractive
topic to ponder further, and directors should take notice of

When you are writing your novels, you have a remarkable
sense of history and period, although the situations in which
your characters are m'uol"üed reflect perennial dilemmas.
Do you feel that any given time creates special problems which
interest you as a writer?

We should define, should we not, what we mean by
"history." If "history" means a "written account of events"
(and that is about all Clio can claim), then let us inquire
who actually-- what scribes, what secretaries-- took it
down and how qualified they were for the job. I am inclined to
guess that a big part of "history" (the unnatural history of
man-- not the naive testimony of rocks) has been modified by
mediocre writers and prejudiced observers. We know that police
states (e.g., the Soviets) have actually snipped out and
destroyed such past events in old books as did not conform to
the falsehoods of the present. But even the most talented and
conscientious historian may err. In other words, I do not
believe that "history" exists apart from the historian. If I
try to select a keeper of records, I think it safer (for my
comfort, at least) to choose my own self. But nothing recorded
or thought up by myself can create any special "problems" in
the sense you suggest.

You say somewhere that, artistically speaking, you
Lolita to all your other books. Has y our new
Ada superseded Lolita in your affection?

Not really. It is true that Ada caused me more
trouble than all my other novels and perhaps that bright fringe
of overlapping worry is synonymous with the crest of love.
Incidentally, speaking of my first nymphet, let me take this
neat opportunity to correct a curious misconception profferred
by an anonymous owl in a London weekly a couple of months ago.
"Lolita" should not be pronounced in the English or Russian
fashion (as he thinks it should), but with a trill of Latin
"l"s and a delicate toothy "t."

Do you feel isolated as a writer?

Most of the writers I have met were Russian emigres in the
nineteen twenties and thirties. With American novelists I have
had virtually no contact. In England, I had lunch once with
Graham Greene. I have dined with Joyce and have had tea with
Robbe-Grillet. Isolation means liberty and discovery. A desert
island may be more exciting than a city, but my loneliness, on
the whole, has little significance. It is a consequence of
chance circumstance-- old shipwrecks, freakish tides-- and not
a matter of temperament. As a private person I am good-natured,
warm, cheerful, straightforward, plainspoken, and intolerant of
bogus art. I do not mind my own writings being criticized or
ignored and therefore think it funny that people not even
concerned with literature should be upset by my finding D. H.
Lawrence execrable or my seeing in H. G. Wells a far greater
artist than Conrad.

What do you think of the so-called "student revolution

Rowdies are never revolutionary, they are always reac'
tionary. It is among the young that the greatest conformists
and Philistines are found, e.g., the hippies with their group
beards and group protests. Demonstrators at American
universities care as little about education as football fans
who smash up subway stations in England care about soccer. All
belong to the same family of goofy hoodlums-- with a sprinkling
of clever rogues among them.

What are your working methods?

Quite banal. Thirty years ago I used to write in bed,
dipping my pen into a bedside inkwell, or else I would compose
mentally at any time of the day or night. I would fall asleep
when the sparrows woke up. Nowadays I write my stuff on index
cards, in pencil, at a lectern, in the forenoon; but I still
tend to do a lot of work in my head during long walks in the
country on dull days when butterflies do not interfere. Here is
a disappointed lepidopterist's ditty:

It's a long climb
Up the rock face
At the wrong time
To the right place.

Do you keep a journal or seek documentary reminders?

I am an ardent memoirist with a rotten memory; a drowsy
king's absentminded remembrancer. With absolute lucidity I
recall landscapes, gestures, intonations, a million sensuous
details, but names and numbers topple into oblivion with absurd
abandon like little blind men in file from a pier.